The Story Behind Sundance Smash Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Photo: Sundance

I love this movie. I love this movie so, so, so much. Mere minutes into Sunday afternoon’s Sundance screening of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I started involuntarily whispering those words to the fellow journalist sitting next to me. I laughed hard many, many times. I bawled for minutes on end. And like the rest of the audience, I rose to my feet to applaud in the dark while the credits were rolling, tears still streaming down my face. 

More than any other movie that’s screened at Sundance 2015, Me and Earl feels like a breakout hit — it boasts an exciting second-time feature-film director, Alfonso Goméz-Rejón (who’s done Emmy-winning work as one of the most visually experimental directors on American Horror Story); a sharp first-time screenwriter, Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel); and a virtually unknown young lead, Thomas Mann, whose previous work (2012’s house-party-gone-wild trifle Project X) didn’t exactly suggest that he was capable of such heavy lifting.

So what is the movie about? Well, there is terminal illness involved, and ... keep reading only if you’re okay with possible SPOILERS. On the surface, Me and Earl is another sick-kid movie, about an outcast Pittsburgh boy, Greg, played by Mann, who’s forced by his mother (Connie Britton; Nick Offerman plays his weirdo sociology-professor dad) to be the cheer wagon for a classmate, Rachel (virtual newcomer Olivia Cooke), who’s been diagnosed with stage-four leukemia. What sets Me and Earl apart, though, is Greg’s unreliable narration, as a goofy kid who’s using humor, denial, and a giant imagination to keep from thinking about the devastation in front of him. He's doing his best to distract Rachel by bringing her into the world he shares world with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), a black kid from a rougher neighborhood — the two spend their time irreverently remaking art-house classics. (Eyes Wide Butt, My Dinner With Andre the Giant, and A Sockwork Orange.) Director Goméz-Rejón, a former personal assistant to Martin Scorsese and Nora Ephron, among others, has both style and heart to spare, coming off like Wes Anderson and the Wallace & Gromit guys meet John Hughes.

I wasn’t the only one who responded so strongly to the film. Senator Barbara Boxer, sitting one seat away, was looking a little misty. “I enjoyed that so much,” she said. HitFix’s Gregory Ellwood waited fewer than ten seconds after the screening ended to tweet, “Ladies and gentlemen I do not say this lightly. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may be your 1st best picture nominee of 2015.” Apparently, every major studio head in Park City felt the same way, because Me and Earl is on the verge of closing what would be the highest Sundance sale ever, $12 million, which would put it well ahead of the $10 million ceiling set by Little Miss Sunshine, Spitfire Grill, The Way Way Back, and Hamlet 2. Deadline reports that Fox Searchlight looks like the front-runner, though when I ran into Goméz-Rejón at the movie’s Grey Goose–sponsored after-party, he said that Dimension Films’ Bob Weinstein had sought him out two times in the hour since the screening. [Update: The film has been bought by Fox Searchlight and Indian Paintbrush in a semi-complicated tag-team deal for, we're now told, mid seven-figures.]

Here’s more on the making of this Sundance breakout:

1. Connie Britton signed on without reading the script.
“I had known Alfonso from American Horror Story,” Britton said at the after-party, “and when I heard he was directing a movie, I basically sent him an email and I said, ‘I don’t know what this movie is you’re directing, but if there’s a part in it for me, I want to play it.” She added: “If you talk to Alfonso for five minutes, you realize how brilliant he is.” 

2. The film required an entire separate unit to make Greg and Earl’s homemade re-creations of old movies.
“It was like being a kid and making movies with your friend,” said Mann. His favorite Me and Earl homages included Breathe Less, a take on Breathless prominently featuring asthma inhalers, and, explains Mann, “Pooping Tom, based on Peeping Tom, the Michael Powell movie, where it’s a plunger coming at me instead of a knife.”

3. Casting the part of Earl required 500 auditions.
RJ Cyler, a former dance instructor who’d never acted in a movie prior to Me and Earl, auditioned two weeks before shooting began. Amazingly, he landed the role of the street-wise title character, a kid who who wishes he had a dad like Greg’s — someone who could introduce him to all kinds of weird meats. (Greg’s dad likes to cook, among other things, cuttlefish.)

Mann says that as soon as he read the script, a year and a half before they started casting the film, he knew he wanted the role. “It sounded like my voice,” he said. “I knew I could do it.” He heard about auditions while he was visiting his family in Dallas, Texas, and made a tape to send in. When he and Cooke found out they were going to do a chemistry read, they decided to grab dinner the night before to talk about the script and get to know each other. “We both really, really wanted it,” says Mann. “The next day went so well. As soon as they were like, ‘Okay, thanks, guys, great job, see you later,’ and closed the door, we’re both like jumping up and down because we’re like, ‘This is it! We got the part!’ And then weeks went by and they were reading other actors and we were like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’” They, of course, ended up getting the parts. 

4. It’s a deeply personal film for both Andrews and for Goméz-Rejón, whose father suddenly passed away the year before the movie was made.
Again speaking at the after-party, Goméz-Rejón said he “needed” the film to help him process is father’s passing. “This is about confronting my dad’s death and coming out on the other side,” he said, “with optimism, and putting myself together, which is something I never did. When I read the script, it was all done with such humor, and my dad, besides being the most compassionate person on the planet, was the funniest. So to be able to make a film for him the way that Greg does for Rachel [in the film] was what I needed to do to move on in a positive way.”